Article by Jenna Anderson

Until recently, I wouldn’t have called myself an athlete. For me, it’s always been people assuming I’m fit by looking at me. I’d sort of go along with it, because if someone wants to think I’m fit, I’m not going to argue with them.

Then I started mixed martial arts.

After one class, it was clear: I can’t fake my way through this. How thin I am will not impress these people. The only thing that counts is how hard I work. Because in this gym it isn’t about how much you can lift or the size of your muscles – here it’s about how you can use what you’ve got. Can you hit the bag for a three-minute round or can’t you? Are you strong enough to do a never-ending number of pushups throughout a class or are you not? If you drop to your knees and do the easier version or if you stop for ten seconds to catch your breath, no one’s going to say anything. Because here, you’re not cheating anyone but yourself.

I didn’t expect martial arts to teach me about life, but I’ve been going to the gym less than two months and there are already several lessons I’ve taken away:

I am a fighter. 

I may never get into a ring (I may, who knows!), but either I’m a fighter or I’m not. A friend challenged me with this. I train in a mostly-male environment, and most of the times I’m matched with someone there’s a zero percent chance that I can win. But it’s not about whether you can win – it’s about whether you are willing to try. And who knows, you might win. If you don’t give it a shot, you never will.

Control your body.

Your body doesn’t tell you what to do, it’s your brain. My kickboxing instructor says this to the class over and over and over. Two punches and a kick – don’t snap your foot, don’t lose your balance. Control your body. Aim, push your hip out, make contact. Bring your foot back. Keep your balance. Control your body. Keep your hands up; you’ve got to protect your head. Control your body. Then one day I realized something. When I leave the gym, I’m still in control. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Decide what you want to do and do it. Control your body. Don’t just go through the day aimlessly. Make a decision and follow through. Control your body.

Breathe.

My muscles are getting stronger, which you’d think would be a good thing. But stronger muscles means you can work them harder and I found my lungs struggling to keep up. I made it through a three-minute round with the bag and couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. My friend told me I needed to control my breathing – count to three on the way in, five on the way out. Slow it down. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I remembered this when life got out of control and I had a panic attack in my car. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I remembered this at work during a really stressful day. Deep breaths, slow it down. It worked during a confrontation with another person as well. Stand your ground, take deep breaths and listen.

Don’t make faces. 

My jiu jitsu instructor told me this last week. It was the part of the class where we scrimmage (called rolling for jiu jitsu), and I was matched up with another girl. I haven’t trained long enough to know a lot of moves so I mostly just play defence. My instructor came up as I was trying to free myself and told me not to make faces. “You don’t have to let them know you’re working so hard,” he said. A lot of martial arts – and a lot of life – is a game of chess. Body language and facial expressions matter a lot. Either you let people see what you’re thinking, or you don’t. Knowing the impression you’re giving someone is immensely valuable. If you’re upset or sad, it’s not wrong to show it, but sometimes it’s not ideal. I remember this outside the gym, and when the situation isn’t right, I try not to make faces.

I’m not great at MMA yet. When I’m rolling in jiu jitsu, I still never come out on top. But I’m getting better and stronger. I’m punching harder, kicking higher and I can do more pushups. I admit that I expected this; if you work your muscles, they can perform better. I’m becoming an athlete. The side effects, though, they’re a surprise. I don’t leave behind everything I learn when class is finished for the day. I’m learning these lessons and taking them out of the gym and into the world.


Article by Jenna Anderson, a Winnipeg writer and videographer. You can find her on Twitter @reallyjenna.

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